When I was in eleventh grade, my high school took us on a Jewish History trip. This consisted of going to various different Jewish communities in the New York area and seeing for ourselves what other types of Jews were like. We went to New Square, we went to a Lubavitch school, etc. In one of the places we went, we were told that in their school, they don't read secular books. At all. (This might have been New Square but I don't want to say for sure because I don't actually remember specifically). A lot of the girls in my class, including myself, found it outrageous to censor secular books completely from our library. I couldn't imagine not reading novels just because there were secular ideas, or because a boy and a girl were friends, or anything like that.
One summer, I interviewed at a Literary Agency for a summer internship. They told me at the interview that, if I got in, I'd have to read all different kinds of manuscripts, from adventure to historical fiction to, yes, pornography. Believe it or not, they told me, there is such a thing as good pornography. I wanted to throw up. So when they asked me if I'd be interested working in their children's books department instead, I very readily said yes.
These are two extremes. The first - censoring yourself completely from all secular literature. The second - being asked to read pornography. To me, the answer in those situations are clear. The first - um, no way. The second - um, no way.
But what about everything in between?
Earlier this year in one of my classes, my teacher was complaining about how her freshman class did not want to watch a movie she assigned them because it was inappropriate. She argued that the inappropriate content wasn't there for no reason, it was there as part of the art of the movie. She ended up assigning us the same movie and my first reaction after watching it was, "no wonder the freshman class complained." My second reaction was, "wait a minute, it's art, it's for the sake of art so it's okay." My third reaction was, "what?! Would I really compromise my own standards for the sake of art?! Of course not! That's ridiculous! What is art to me? Not higher than my own religion! Not higher than my own moral standards!"
Yesterday in a different class, my teacher talked about two schools of thought back in the 18th century when it came to literature. One was that literature was supposed to be an emotional experience where you actually get affected by what you read in an emotional way and it becomes a part of you because of it. The other was that literature is supposed to be a bit more removed from a person so they have time to think about it but not feel actual, almost physical, emotional responses (like, for instance, crying. Or being put in a mood all day because of something you've read). My teacher claimed, and I think I agree with her, that you are what you read. What you read does become a part of you. It does affect you. It affects the way you think, the way you feel about things, it gives you experiences that, while they may not have actually happened to you, you've experienced vicariously through the characters in a book.
I know people who love reading trashy books because it makes them feel like they have a boyfriend. Even - look at this comment from my post a few days ago: "I think you're missing the point of reading Twilight and, to a certain degree, a lot of the iffy teenaged girl literatuer out there. The characters are allowed to be flat because the goal is not to create well rounded characters, the goal is to deal in wish fulfillment [...] I think that there is something about modern culture that causes the masses to feel more at home with being the story than being told it. Even if that means a compromise in the characterization and telling of the tale."
I completely agree with this assessment of modern culture - but that doesn't make it okay!
Perhaps the line is different for everyone. Perhaps you can't make a general rule about what should and should not be read or what should and should not be written about. Still, I think it's very important to recognize how what we read affects us. It's not only about reading quality literature (though that's of course part of it), it's also about choosing what we expose our minds, imaginations, and emotions to and what we don't. I'm not trying to sound extreme. I don't even mean this in an extreme way. I'm not advocating for the banning of books. No way. I'm just asking everyone to be smart. Just like you are what you eat, you are what you read. You are what you watch on TV. You're affected by your experiences in life AND in fiction. I, God forbid, do not mean people should not read or write about major issues that happen to be inappropriate or frightening or both. It's important to raise awareness about those issues. Of course. I just mean - well, I already said it. Be smart. Know yourself. Know what you want to expose yourself to. Do you really want to read an explicit description of a rape scene, for example? Where are your lines? It's important to know.